Jenny Diski

When I was a student in the 1960s I wouldn’t shop in Sainsbury’s because they sold South African wine. After I married, my father-in-law in South Africa said: ‘You’ve got to live here before you can understand what Africans are like.’ I was shocked that anyone could talk about people like that. But I’ve grown to understand, now I’ve been living here.

Mike is a retired GP from the UK who moved to Cape Town with his South African wife and child eight years ago. They were going for a short stay at Farm 215, an eco-friendly country-house ‘retreat’ two hours away from the city, and offered to drive me there and back. (The quotes that follow are all from that trip.)

The ‘you can’t understand until you’ve lived there’ argument had kept me from visiting South Africa quite effectively. If being there would make me understanding of apartheid, I preferred to stay away. But now it had to be a very different place, 18 years after Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, 14 years on from the day when South Africa had its first democratic election. I was going to be there anyway – Cape Town was the end point of another journey – and I thought I’d spend a couple of weeks and look around; be a regular tourist in a place where minds had been changed.

My small hotel was in the suburbs, an elegant townhouse with high ceilings, a swimming-pool and African art on the walls, and for the first few days I did what tourists are supposed to do. I asked advice from the hotel staff, read the brochures and took the day trip that hit the main spots: the cable-car up Table Mountain, Boulders Beach to see the African penguins, and Cape Point, where hundreds of other tourists were taking it in turns to shoot the ocean and mug for the camera beside the noticeboard that said they were at the southernmost point of Africa. The following day I was directed to Greenmarket Square, where dozens of stalls sold ‘African handicrafts’: beaded animals and bracelets, drums and T-shirts that all looked as if they had come from the container marked ‘Africa’ in the Great Central Tourist Warehouse somewhere in China, which dishes out geegaws for every ethnicity of every continent. Then to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, identical to every modernised waterfront in the world: fast food outlets, inflated prices, tourists snapping ‘authentic’ oil-drum bands, and more of the same tat from the Endless Depot of International Crap. I left the waterfront so fast that I got back into the same taxi that had brought me there. The Indian taxi-driver, hearing that I was going to write about my trip, told me without my asking a question:

Mandela’s heart must be broken. This is supposed to be a democracy, but whites, coloureds and Indians are excluded. Mbeki’s government is only interested in Africans. Zuma says what people want to hear, but he’s crazy like Mugabe. Tell me any African heads of state who haven’t gone corrupt and crazy? In seven years South Africa will be like Zimbabwe.

Until then, like the tat in the tourist shops, I could have been anywhere in the world, which was disturbing because I was in South Africa, the miracle of truth and reconciliation, as I’d imagined. Certainly, it had problems – how could it not? – but I supposed that, except for an incorrigible few, South Africans were committed to making the country work. I was in a ‘city of contrasts’, everyone kept telling me (again without my asking), but the only indications I had of this in my first few days as a tourist were the electrified and razor-wire fences encircling all the houses; the constant barking of the guard dogs behind the defended walls; the signs on sturdy electronic gates that said the wealth indoors was being protected by ADT; and the warning from the people at the hotel not to go out alone at night, ever, anywhere, no matter how close by.

I spent the afternoon at the botanical gardens in Kirstenbosch with Moira, a friend of a friend. She was in her late sixties, had grown up in southern Africa, raised her own family in Cape Town, all the while disapproving of apartheid. After the change of government, she taught nursery-aged black and coloured children of returnees from exile, in an impoverished part of town. ‘The country is being ruined by the greed and resentment of the Africans,’ she said as we had lunch. ‘They’ve got bad values – which is the result of cultural collapse because of the loss of traditional structures, but then again, cheating is the nature of Africans.’ She told me a ‘true’ story from a Zimbabwean farmer friend of hers, who got it from a friend of his, about an Englishman working as a foreman for a black landowner, who asked him: ‘How come you never cheat me?’ The Englishman, surprised, said: ‘Well, I’m just an honest man.’ The landowner roared with laughter. ‘We have always been cheats. That’s the only way to get rich.’ Moira explained that the character of the Trickster appears in all the traditional African stories. ‘They don’t have tales about kings and queens and heroes.’ She was adamant about this, though I suggested that the Trickster appears in some form or other in most traditions.

Then she told me another story that she assured me was ‘true’.

An Englishman, a Thai and an African were all together at Oxbridge. After some years the Englishman goes to visit the Thai who is hugely rich. ‘How come?’ asks the Englishman. ‘See that road? I own 10 per cent of it,’ the Thai tells him. The Englishman goes to visit the African, who is also hugely rich. ‘How come?’ ‘See that road?’ says the African. ‘What road?’ the Englishman asks.

Moira waited for me to burst out laughing, but it was a minute or two before I could make anything at all of this story. Besides, what were the overseas students doing in ‘Oxbridge’ in the first place if they weren’t rich already? Before I left, Moira asked me if I’d been to Robben Island. I hadn’t. ‘I went once – quite decent accommodation, and they were allowed to have their study groups and books. I left thinking it wasn’t nearly as bad as the Nazi concentration camps.’

Moira doesn’t think she’s a racist and does her best to help the impoverished situation of Africans in Cape Town. She pays her gardener 150 rand a day instead of the more usual 100 rand: ‘We each of us do what we can to help.’ She is not the only person to tell me this. But people aren’t satisfied, she says, they continue to complain. At 7.30 one morning she was putting out some rubbish when a homeless man to whom she regularly gives old newspapers, for selling to the recycling depot, called out to her: ‘Missus, you give me papers, but I need food.’ ‘It was too early to cope with that sort of thing,’ she told me. ‘You see, people feel they are owed and they won’t do anything for themselves.’ The phrase ‘culture of resentment and dependency’ came up again and again, like ‘the city of contrasts’.

Faizal Gangat runs Cape Capers Tours, which includes visits to townships. I met him for coffee towards the end of my stay. He is Indian, born and brought up in Cape Town, but rejects the niceties of South African racial divisions and calls himself black. ‘It’s a matter of spirit. Anyone can be an African. You can be an African.’ He’s been a supporter of the ANC since the days when they were a guerrilla army of liberation and clings on to the old ideals now that they’re in power and (another phrase) ‘running down the first-world economy they started with’. When I ask him about some of the government’s clumsier policies he instructs me, ‘Make a table,’ and then takes my notebook and makes it himself. It shows the population of South Africa in terms of race – 9.1 per cent whites, 2.4 per cent Indian/Asian, 8.8 per cent coloured, 79.7 per cent black – and unemployment: white 4.5 per cent, Indian/ Asian 9.6 per cent, coloured 19.4 per cent, black 30.5 per cent. ‘That’s why we have Black Economic Empowerment laws. If big businesses had really committed themselves to training and mentorship right at the beginning it wouldn’t be necessary. So the government has to make laws to force them to co-operate. How else can those figures be changed?’

Gangat believes that Mbeki must go, and is not against Zuma taking over. He knows that there is corruption and incompetence in government. But he reminds me of the weight of history and of the wealth still almost entirely in the hands of white South Africans. It was what I’d been suggesting to the white South Africans who told me of the terminal decline of their country under the ANC government. ‘That was another generation,’ I was told by the owner of the hotel, formerly an investment banker, a man in his mid-forties. ‘You can’t blame the whites living here now for the lack of training and education of the Africans.’ For all the world as if 14 years were a generation or two. He had been planning to buy the house next door and enlarge the hotel, but with the economy in freefall and Zuma (‘totally uneducated’) about to get into power, he has decided not to. Indeed, like many whites, he is considering leaving South Africa for good, even though it would mean a drastic lowering of his living conditions.

MIKE: We have this ‘positive discrimination’. If there’s a job advertised the first person to get it will be a disabled black woman; the white male is at the very bottom of the list. It’s called Black Economic Empowerment. I call it ‘reverse racism’. You don’t hear about it but these days there are poor whites living in coloured townships, people who have lost their jobs to blacks. This government has got rid of the educated whites and put untrained blacks in their place. So now the country’s collapsing. They just haven’t got a head for business. There are no African businesses. The coloureds who have brains are more like the white man. They want to make a profit. It makes them the main criminals – but they know how to do business … Blacks have different brains from whites. They don’t think in the same way. I read about the suppressed brain research in The God Delusion. They are more inclined to rest. You can see them lying out on the streets, in full sun. They can’t even be bothered to go into the shade. Those dead blacks lying on the streets that were on the news during the apartheid era were really blacks sleeping. Some people say that blacks are not more evolved than animals – I don’t believe that nonsense. Of course, you meet stupid people everywhere – there are plenty on English council estates … We lead a life we couldn’t possibly live on my pension in England. But we’re thinking about going back to the UK if the situation gets any worse.

I looked at various attempts at ecological tourism as a way of salvaging something less discouraging from my stay. They were all admirable efforts to save the planet but none of them really occluded my sense of being in a wealthy nowhere-in-particular. It wasn’t until I took one of Faizal Gangat’s tours – a visit to Langa Township (population 250,000) and a night at Ma Neo’s B&B – that I found I was somewhere very particular after all. There was much astonishment from Moira, Mike, the people at the hotel and others that I was going to spend the night in a township. I was brave, they said (meaning naive or ‘liberal’, I think), but wasn’t it patronising to walk around Langa looking at poverty? I was worried about that, too, until every white person I spoke to said the same thing.

MIKE: The blacks are prejudiced against the whites. Some Afrikaners (who are very narrow-minded people) hate the blacks. We are all born racists. It’s innate. We’re naturally sceptical of outsiders. The Africans are killing and burning immigrants from other parts of Africa and Zimbabwe. We can try and get rid of our racism but it’s impossible to lose it completely, however much we want to.

Ma Neo welcomed me to her house (a proper one-storey house, not a tin shack, though there were plenty of those in Langa) and told me, as we sat on the sofa, about her life, mostly her experiences as a trained, though now retired Aids nurse. The stories are unbearable, but she wants you to listen to them in all the detail. Retirement hasn’t stopped what she calls the ‘traffic’: every fifteen minutes or so local people knocked at the door, came in hesitantly, looking anxious, keeping their eyes averted and spoke to Ma Neo in Xhosa. She answered calmly, sometimes sending them into the kitchen, where they sat on a stool eating a plate of food; sometimes they listened to what she had to say and left. ‘They have trouble remembering when to take their medication. One of my visitors got me some mobile phones and I set the alarms and gave them out.’ She recommends malted chocolate for people who come complaining they can’t sleep. ‘It works in the head,’ she says, pointing to her temple.

Her B&B has five comfortable rooms and a bathroom at the back, which she built with her pension money. In the evening she hooked her arm firmly through mine and we walked to the local shebeen for a supper of mealy meal porridge with chillies. It was pretty quiet. Just a few men drinking beer at the bar. The woman who owned the shebeen and served us said she had travelled through Heathrow on her way to Singapore to buy clothes to sell in the township. ‘She’s rich,’ Ma Neo told me when she went to the kitchen. ‘She doesn’t live in the township any more. They move out to the white suburbs, but they don’t enjoy it. They come back here for fun.’ What would you like me to say when I write about you, I asked her. ‘Say that I want whites from Cape Town to come and stay here. No one has ever come. But they should see what it’s like in Langa, and stay in my B&B for the weekend so they know about us and support what we’re doing. The whites still don’t want to accept blacks. Mbeki is corrupt, we have nowhere to turn. My B&B has made the papers, been in the books, but no one in Cape Town seems to care.’ Her visitors’ book is signed by people from all over the world, but hardly any South Africans.

During the day I was taken around the township by Thembalakha from the Tsoga Centre, which trains people to run small businesses. Prince Charles visited years ago, planted a tree and promised to send them a computer. They’re still waiting, Thembalakha says, smiling at the severely stunted trunk with the prince’s name on its label. He showed me around the old hostels where men working in the city used to live three to a room, 15 people to a unit. Dark concrete and stinking of too many people. They were still inhabited, one bed per family, with children sleeping on mats on the floor, though some have been converted into one-room apartments with a kitchen and bathroom. There was Beverly Hills, a row of solidly built houses for ‘doctors and professional people’, put up by the apartheid government to conceal the hostels from passing white eyes. And there were the tin shacks of Joe Slovo informal settlement (the government-approved name for ‘shanty towns’), where, by arrangement, I was invited to look around while a young woman sat on a bed texting as her mother stood outside with a small stall of bracelets and beads to sell to the few tourists who come by. I felt quite as uncomfortable, white and rich, and patronising, as the white South Africans suggested I would; that was my problem, one of the very few problems that those who lived there didn’t have. Passing the most destitute-looking of the shacks, I was certain that they’d been abandoned, that no one lived in them, until I noticed the washing hanging outside. T-shirts and trousers, dresses and sweaters, drying in the dusty heat. Everywhere there was washing hanging up, as if keeping clothes clean was the sole purpose of living.

MIKE: I asked our maid: ‘Would you rather live in a house like ours, or in your mother’s mud hut that won the best in the township?’ ‘Are you crazy?’ she answered. I said to her: ‘But you would have to pay rent, and water rates and so on, it wouldn’t be a free and easy life like in a mud hut.’ ‘I’d rather live in a house and work,’ she replied. But the blacks complained when they were given houses by Mandela’s government. They thought the state should pay for the furniture and upkeep too. They didn’t want to work to support their lifestyle.

I went to see a friend whom I know from his visits to London. ‘You’ve been meeting the wrong people,’ he told me. But the point was I was just being a tourist, happening upon whatever people had to say. My friend was a member of the ANC back in the day, but is now a supporter of the Democratic Alliance. ‘There’s something to be said for the view that you have to live here to understand what’s happening. After apartheid, we were left with a brilliant infrastructure, and natural resources the world envied us for. Now we are having electricity cuts, purely because of incompetence. They sacked expert whites and put undertrained Africans in their place. There has been a black middle-class rush for wealth, and they aren’t interested in helping the poor.’ We were standing on his balcony up in the hills, looking down at the lights of Cape Town. ‘That house has an even better view,’ he said, pointing to the one above us. ‘That’s owned by a coloured man,’ he said, after a pause, laughing at me for my political naivety. He has built a house for the man he employs as his gardener, a Zimbabwean refugee. ‘Now his wife and half his family have arrived, and they all live there. They take care of the house, but basically I’m responsible for them all. It’s not what I would have chosen, but we each do what we can in our own way. Call it paternalistic, if you like, but a white man like me is manna from heaven to them.’ I called him paternalistic.

‘There is new legislation,’ he said. ‘The government is taking the multinational oil companies into public ownership. In return they are given a lease, but the law says that the right to the lease could be rescinded at any time. How can anyone expect business to stay and support the government? They just say nothing, smile and make plans to leave.’ He agrees that Bantu education was a disaster, possibly the worst mistake of the apartheid regime, apart from thinking that they could hold the country against such a massive black majority. ‘But there’s a real entitlement problem among the Africans. They think they’re owed. But we’ll get through this crisis. We’ve been on the edge of catastrophe for as long as I can remember. People have always been predicting catastrophe. But there are plenty of resources still, and disaster never quite happens. Individuals are all right – people with wealth will always survive. It’s the masses who suffer. Always been that way. I do what I can, and I love South Africa. I have a physical relationship with it. It’s the most beautiful place in the world. I stand on the balcony and watch the animal life, the view, the plants, the ocean. There’s nowhere in the world like it.’

And this is true. In fact, when I respond to anyone who asks about my trip to Cape Town by saying, as I do, ‘It was awful, really awful,’ those who have been there always say, ‘But it’s so beautiful,’ as if I’m being too negative and not appreciating what is good about the place. It makes me feel strangely guilty and graceless. But it was awful, really awful.